German Society at the Close of The Middle Ages. Belfort Bax
Social Movements of the German Reformation.


The close of the fifteenth century had left the whole structure of mediaeval Europe to all appearance intact. Statesmen and writers like Philip de Commines had apparently as little suspicion that the state of things they saw around them, in which their had grown up and of which they were representatives, was ever destined to pass away, as Lord Palmerston or any other statesman of the Cobden-Bright period had that the existing system of society, say in 1860, was at any time likely to suffer other changes than those of detail. Society was organised on the feudal hierarchy of status. In the first place, a noble class, spiritual and temporal, was opposed to a peasantry either wholly servile or but nominally free. In addition to this opposition of noble and peasant there was that of the township, which, in its corporate capacity, stood in the relation of lord to the surrounding peasantry.

The township in Germany was of two kinds — first of all, there was the township that was “free of the Empire,” that is, that nominally from the Emperor himself (Reichstadt), and secondly, there was the township that was under the domination of an intermediate lord. The economic basis of the whole was still land; the status of a man or of a corporation was determined by the mode in which they held their land. “No land without a lord” was the principle of mediaval polity; just as “money has no master” is the basis of the bourgeois world with its self-made men. Every distinction of rank in the feudal system was still denoted for the most part by a special costume. It was a world of knights in armour, of ecclesiastics in vestments and stoles, of lawyers in robes, of princes in silk and velvet and cloth of gold, and of peasants in laced shoe, brown cloak, and cloth hat.

But although the whole feudal organisation was outwardly intact, the thinker who was watching the signs of the times would not have been long in arriving at the conclusion that feudalism was “played out,” that the whole fabric of mediaeval civilisation was becoming dry and withered, and had either already begun to disintegrate or was on the eve of doing so. Causes of change had within the past half-century been working underneath the surface of social life, and were rapidly undermining the whole structure. The growing use of fire-arms in war; the rapid multiplication of printed books; the spread of the new learning after the taking of Constantinople in 1453, and the subsequent diffusion of Greek teachers throughout Europe; the surely and steadily increasing communication with the new world, and the consequent increase of the precious metals; and, last but not least, Vasco de Gama’s discovery of the new trade route from the East by way of the Cape — all these were indications of the fact that the death-knell of the old order of things had been struck.

Notwithstanding the apparent outward integrity of the system based on land tenures, land was ceasing to be the only form of productive wealth. Hence it was losing the exclusive importance attaching to it in the earlier period of the Middle Ages. The first form of modern capitalism had already arisen. Large aggregations of capital in the hands of trading companies were becoming common. The Roman law was establishing itself in the place of the old customary tribal law which had hitherto prevailed in the manorial courts, serving in some sort as a bulwark against the caprice of the territorial lord; and this change facilitated the development of the bourgeois principle of private, as opposed to communal, property. In intellectual matters, though theology still maintained its supremacy as the chief subject of human interest, other interests were rapidly growing up alongside of it, the most prominent being the study of classical literature.

Besides these things, there was the dawning interest in nature, which took on, as a matter of course, a magical form in accordance with traditional and contemporary modes of thought. In fact, like the flicker of a dying candle in its socket, the Middle Ages seemed at the beginning of the sixteenth century to exhibit all their own salient characteristics in an exaggerated and distorted form. The old feudal relations had degenerated into a blood-sucking oppression; the old rough brutality, into excogitated and elaborated cruelty (aptly illustrated in the collection of ingenious instruments preserved in the Torture-tower at Nürnberg); the old crude superstition, into a systematised magical theory of natural causes and effects; the old love of pageantry, into a lavish luxury and magnificence of which we have in the “field of the cloth of gold” the stock historical example; the old chivalry, into the mercenary bravery of the soldier, whose trade it was to tight, and who recognised only one virtue — to wit, animal courage. Again, all these exaggerated characteristics were mixed with new elements, which distorted them further, and which foreshadowed a coming change, the ultimate issue of which would be their extinction and that of the life of which they were the signs.

The growing- tendency towards centralisation and the consequent suppression or curtailment of the local autonomies of the Middle Ages in the interests of some kind of national government, of which the political careers of Louis XI. in France, of Edward IV. in England, and of Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain were such conspicuous instances, did not fail to affect in a lesser degree that loosely connected political system of German States known as the Holy Roman Empire. Maximilian’s first Reichstag in 1495 caused to be issued an imperial edict suppressing the right of private warfare claimed and exercised by the whole noble class from the princes of the Empire down to the meanest knight. In the same year the Imperial Chamber (Reichskammer) was established, and in 1501 the Imperial Aulic Council. Maximilian also organised a standing army of mercenary troops, called Landesknechte. Shortly afterwards Germany was divided into imperial districts called circles (Kreise), ultimately ten in number, all of which were under a Reichsregiment, which had at its disposal a military force for the punishment of disturbers of the peace. But the public opinion of the age, conjoined with the particular circumstances, political and economic, of central Europe, robbed the enactment in a great measure of its immediate effect. Highway plundering and even private war was still going on, to a considerable extent, far into the sixteenth century. Charles V. pursued the same line of policy; but it was not until after the suppression of the lower nobility in 1523, and finally of the peasants in 1526, that any material change took place; and then the centralisation, such as it was, was in favour of the princes, rather than of the imperial power, which, after Charles V.’s time, grew weaker and weaker. The speciality about the history of Germany is, that it has not known till our own day centralisation on a national or racial scale like England or France.

At the opening of the sixteenth century public opinion not merely sanctioned open plunder by the wearer of spurs and by the possessor of a stronghold, but regarded it as his special prerogative, the exercise of which was honourable rather than disgraceful. The cities certainly resented their burghers being waylaid and robbed, and hanged the knights whenever they could; and something like a perpetual feud always existed between the wealthier cities and the knights who infested the trade routes leading to and from them. Still, these belligerent relations were taken as a matter of course; and no disgrace, in the modern sense, attached to the occupation of highway robbery.

In consequence of the impoverishment of the knights at this period, owing to causes with which we shall deal later, the trade or profession had recently received an accession of vigour, and at the same time was carried on more brutally and mercilessly than ever before. We will give some instances of the sort of occurrence which was by no means unusual. In the immediate neighbourhood of Nürnberg, which was bien entendu one of the chief seats of the imperial power, a robber-knight leader, named Hans Thomas von Absberg, was a standing menace. It was the custom of this ruffian, who had a large following, to plunder even the poorest who came from the city, and, not content with this, to mutilate his victims. In June, 1522, he fell upon a wretched craftsman, and with his own sword hacked off the poor fellow’s right hand, notwithstanding that the man begged him upon his knees to take the left, and not destroy his means of earning his livelihood. The following August he, with his band, attacked a Nürnberg tanner, whose hand was similarly treated, one of his associates remarking that he was glad to set to work again, as it was “a long time since they had done any business in hands “. On the same occasion a cutler was dealt with after a similar fashion. The hands in these cases were, collected and sent to the bürgermeister of Nürnberg, with some such phrase as that the sender (Hans Thomas) would treat all so who came from the city. The princes themselves, when it suited their purpose, did not hesitate to offer an asylum to these knightly robbers. With Absberg were associated Georg von Giech and Hans George von Aufsess. Among other notable robber-knights of the time may be mentioned the Lord of Brandenstein and the Lord of Rosenberg. As illustrating the strictly professional character of the pursuit, and the brutally callous nature of the society practising it, we may narrate that Margaretha von Brandenstein was accustomed, it is recorded, to give the advice to the choice guests round her board that when a merchant failed to keep his promise to them, they should never hesitate to cut off both his hands. Even Franz yon Sichingen, known sometimes as the “last flower of German chivalry,” boasted of having among the intimate associates of his enterprise for the rehabilitation of knighthood many gentlemen who had peen accustomed to “let their horses on the high road bite off the purses of wayfarers”. So strong was the public opinion of the noble class as to the inviolability of the privilege of highway plunder that a monk, preaching one day in a cathedral and happening to attack it as unjustifiable, narrowly escaped death at the hands of some knights present amongst his congregation, who asserted that he had insulted the prerogatives of their order. Whenever this form of knight-errantry was criticised, there were never wanting scholarly pens to defend it as a legitimate means of aristocratic livelihood; since a knight must live in suitable style, and this was often his only resource for obtaining the means thereto.

The free cities, which were subject only to imperial jurisdiction, were practically independent republics. Their organisation was a microcosm of that of the entire Empire. At the apex of the municipal society was the Bürgermeister and the so-called “Honorability” (Ehrbarkeit), which consisted of the patrician gentes, (in most cases) those families which were supposed to be descended from the original chartered freemen of the town, the old Mark-brethren. They comprised generally the richest families, and had monopolised the entire government of the city, together with the right to administer its various sources of income and to consume its revenue at their pleasure. By the time, however, of which we are writing the trading guilds had also attained to a separate power of their own, and were in some cases ousting the burgher-aristocracy, though they were very generally susceptible of being manipulated by the members of the patrician class, who, as a rule, could alone sit in the Council (Rath). The latter body stood, in fact, as regards the town, much in the relation of the feudal lord to his manor. Strong in their wealth and in their aristocratic privileges, the patricians lorded it alike over the townspeople and over the neighbouring peasantry, who were subject to the municipality. They forestalled and regrated with impunity. They assumed the chief rights in the municipal lands, in many cases imposed duties at their own caprice, and turned guild privileges and rights of citizenship into a source of profit for themselves. Their bailiffs in the country districts forming part of their territory were often more voracious in their treatment of the peasants than even the nobles themselves. The accounts of income and expenditure were kept in the loosest manner, and embezzlement clumsily concealed was the rule rather than the exception.

The opposition of the non-privileged citizens, usually led by the wealthier guildsmen not belonging to the aristocratic class, operated through the guilds and through the open assembly of the citizens. It had already frequently succeeded in establishing a representation of the general body of the guildsmen in a so-called Great Council (Grosser Rath), and in addition, as already said, in ousting the “honorables” from some of the public functions. Altogether the patrician party, though still powerful enough, was at the opening of the sixteenth century already on the decline, the wealthy and unprivileged opposition beginning in its turn to constitute itself into a quasi-aristocratic body as against the mass of the poorer citizens and those outside the pale of municipal rights. The latter class was now becoming an important and turbulent factor in the life of the larger cities. The craft-guilds, consisting of the body of non-patrician citizens, were naturally in general dominated by their most wealthy section.

We may here observe that the development of the mediaeval township from its earliest beginnings up to the period of its decay in the sixteenth century was almost uniformly as follows:[1] At first the township, or rather what later became the township, was represented entirely by the group of gentes or group — families originally settled within the mark or district on which the town subsequently stood. These constituted the original aristocracy from which the tradition of the Ehrbarkeit dated. In those towns founded by the Romans, such as Trier, Aachen, and others, the case was of course a little different. There the origin of the Ehrbarkeit may possibly be sought for in the leading families of the Roman provincials who were in occupation of the town at the coming of the barbarians in the fifth century. Round this nucleus there gradually accreted from the earliest period of the Middle Ages the freed men of the surrounding districts, fugitive serfs, and others who sought that protection and means of livelihood in a community under the immediate domination of a powerful lord, which they could not otherwise obtain when their native village-community had perchance been raided by some marauding noble and his retainers. Circumstances, amongst others the fact that the community to which they attached themselves had already adopted commerce and thus become a guild of merchants, led to the differentiation of industrial functions amongst the new-comers, and thus to the establishment of craft-guilds.

Another origin of the townsfolk, which must not be overlooked, is to be found in the attendants on the palace-fortress of some great overlord. In the early Middle Ages all such magnates kept up an extensive establishment, the greater, ecclesiastical lords no less than the secular often having several palaces. In Germany this origin of the township was furthered by Charles the Great, who established schools and other civil institutions, with a magistrate at their head, round many of the palaces that he founded. “A new epoch,” says Von Maurer, “begins with the villa-foundations of Charles the Great and his ordinances respecting them, for that his celebrated capitularies in this connection were intended for his newly established villas is self-evident. In that proceeding he obviously had the Roman villa in his mind, and on the model of this he rather further developed the previously existing court and villa constitution than completely reorganised it. Hence one finds even in his new creations the old foundation again, albeit on a far more extended plan, the economical side of such villa-colonies being especially more completely and effectively ordered."[2] The expression “Palatine,” as applied to certain districts, bears testimony to the fact here referred to. As above said, the development of the township was everywhere on the same lines. The aim of the civic community was always to remove as far as possible the power which controlled them. Their worst condition was when they were immediately overshadowed by a territorial magnate. When their immediate lord was a prince, the area of whose feudal jurisdiction was more extensive, his rule was less oppressively felt, and their condition was therefore considerably improved. It was only, however, when cities were “free of the Empire” (Reichsfrei) that they attained the ideal of mediaeval civic freedom.

It follows naturally from the conditions described that there was, in the first place, a conflict between the primitive inhabitants as embodied in their corporate society and the territorial lord, whoever he might be. No sooner had the township acquired a charter of freedom or certain immunities than a new antagonism showed itself between the ancient corporation of the city and the trade-guilds, these representing the later accretions. The territorial lord (if any) now sided, usually though not always, with the patrician party. But the guilds, nevertheless, succeeded in ultimately wresting many of the leading public offices from the exclusive possession of the patrician families. Meanwhile the leading men of the guilds had become hommes arrivés. They had acquired wealth, and influence which was in many cases hereditary in their family, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century they were confronted with the more or less veiled and more or less open opposition of the smaller guildsmen and of the newest comers into the city, the shiftless proletariat of serfs and free peasants, whom economic pressure was fast driving within the walls, but who, owing to the civic organisation having become crystallised, could no longer be absorbed into it. To this mass may be added a certain number of impoverished burghers, who, although nominally within the town organisation, were oppressed by the wealth of the magnates, plebeian and patrician.

The number of persons who, owing to the decay, or one might almost say the collapse, of the strength of the feudal system, were torn from the old moorings and left to drift about shiftless in a world utterly unprepared to deal with such an increase of what was practically vagabondage, was augmenting with every year. The vagrants in all Western European countries had never been so numerous as in the earlier part of the sixteenth century. A portion of these disinherited persons entered the service of kings and princes as mercenary soldiers, and thus became the first germ of the modern standing army. Another portion entered the begging profession, which now notably on the Continent became organised in orthodox and traditional form into guilds, each of which had its master and other officers. Yet another portion sought a more or less permanent domicile as journeymen craftsmen and unskilled labourers in the cities. This fact is noteworthy as the first indication of the proletariat in modern history. “It will be seen,” says Friedrich Engels,[3] “that the plebeian opposition of the then towns consisted of very mixed elements. It united the degenerate components of the old feudal and guild organisation with the as yet undeveloped and new-born proletarian element of modern bourgeois society in embryo. Impoverished guildsmen there were, who through their privileges were still connected with the existing civic order on the one side, and serving-men out of place who had not as yet become proletarians on the other. Between the two were the “companions” (Gesellen) for the nonce outside the official society, and in their position resembling the proletariat as much as was possible in the then state of industry and under the existing guild-privilege. But, nevertheless, almost all of them were future guild-masters by virtue of this very guild-privilege."[4] A noteworthy feature of municipal life at this time was the difficulty and expense attendant on entry into the city organisation even for the status of simple citizen, still more for that of a guildsman. Within a few decades this had enormously increased.

The guild was a characteristic of all mediaeval life. On the model of the village-community, which was originally based on the notion of kinship, every interest, craft, and group of men formed itself into a “brotherhood” or “guild”. The idea of individual autonomy, of individual action independent altogether of the community, is a modern idea which never entered the mediaeval mind. As we have above remarked, even the mendicants and vagabonds could not conceive of adopting begging as a career except under the auspices of a beggars’ guild. The guild was not like a modern commercial syndicate, an abstract body united only by the thread of one immediate personal interest, whose members did not even know each other. His guild-membership interpenetrated the whole life, religious, convivial, social and political, of the mediaeval man. The guilds were more or less of the nature of masonic societies, whose concerns were by no means limited to the mere trade-function that appeared on the surface. “Business” had not as yet begun to absorb the whole life of men. The craft or “mystery” was a function intimately interwoven with the whole concrete social existence. But it is interesting to observe among the symptoms of transition characterising the sixteenth century, as noted above, the formation of companies of merchants apart from and outside the old guild-organisation. These latter really seem a kind of foreshadowing of the rings, trusts, and joint-stock companies of our own day. Many and bitter were the complaints of the manner in which prices were forced up by these earliest examples of the capitalistic syndicate, which powerfully contributed to the accumulation of wealth at one end of the scale and to the intensification of poverty at the other.[5]

The rich burgher loved nothing better than to display an ostentatious profusion of wealth in his house, in his dress, and in his entertainments. On the clothing and ornamentation of himself and his family he often squandered what might have been for his ancestor of the previous century the fortune of a lifetime. Especially was this the case at the Reichstags and other imperial assemblies held in the various free cities at which all the three feudal estates of the Empire were represented. It was the aim of the wealthy councillor or guild-master on these occasions to outbid the princes of the Empire in the magnificence of his person and establishment. The prince did not like to be outdone, and learnt to accustom himself to luxuries, and thereby to indefinitely increase his own expenditure. The same with all classes.

The knighthood or smaller nobles, no longer content with homely fare, sought after costly clothing, expensive food and exotic wines, and to approach the affluent furnishing of the city magnate. His one or two horses, his armour, sword and his lance, his homespuns made almost invariably on his estates, the wine grown in the neighbourhood, his rough oatmeal bread, ‘the constituents of which had been ground at his own mill, the venison and wild fowl hunted by himself or by his few retainers, no longer sufficed for the knight’s wants. In order to compass his new requirements he had to set to work in two ways. Formerly he had little or no need of money. He received, as he gave, everything in kind. Now that he had to deal with the beginnings of a world-market, money was a prime necessity. The first and most obvious way of getting it was to squeeze the peasant on his estate, who, bitten by the new mania, had also begun to accumulate and turn into cash the surplus products of labour on his holding. From what we have before said of the ways and manners of the knighthood, the reader may well imagine that he did not hesitate to “tower” the recalcitrant peasant, as it was called, that is, to throw him into his castle-dungeon if other means failed to make him disgorge his treasure as soon as it came to his lord’s ears that he had any. But the more ordinary method of squeezing the peasant was by doubling and trebling the tithes and other dues, by imposing fresh burdens (many of them utterly unwarranted by custom) on any or no pretext. The princes, lay and ecclesiastic, applied the same methods on a more extended scale. These were often effected in an ingenious manner by the ecclesiastical lords through the forging of manorial rolls.

The second of the methods spoken of for “raising the wind” was the mortgaging of castle and lands to the money-lending syndicates of the towns, or, in the case of the greater princes, to the towns themselves in their corporate capacity. The Jews also came in for share of land mortgages. There were, in fact, few free or semi-free peasants whose lands were not more or less hypothecated. Meanwhile prices rose to an incredible extent in a few years.

Such were the causes and results of the change in domestic life which the economic evolution of the close of the Middle ages was now bringing about amongst all classes.

The ecclesiastical lords, or lords spiritual, differed in no way in their character and conduct from the temporal princes of the Empire. In one respect they outdid the princes, namely, in the forgery of documents, as already mentioned. Luxury had, moreover, owing to the communication which they had with Rome and thus indirectly with the Byzantine civilisation, already begun with the prelates in the earlier Middle Ages. It now burst all bounds. The ecclesiastical courts were the seat of every kind of debauchery. As we shall see later on, they also became they places where the new learning first flourished. But in addition to the general luxury in which the higher ecclesiastics outdid the lay element of the Empire, there was a special cause which rendered them obnoxious alike to the peasants, to the towns, and to their own feudatory nobles. This special cause was the enormous sum payable to Rome for the Pallium or Investiture, a tax that had to be raised by the inhabitants of the diocese on every change of archbishop, bishop, or abbot. In addition thereto the entire income of the first year after the investiture accrued to the Papal Treasury under the name of Annates. This constituted a continuous drain on the ecclesiastical dependencies and indirectly on the whole Empire. There must also be added the cost of frequent journeys to Rome, where each dignitary during his residence held court in a style of sumptuous magnificence. All these expenses tended to drain the resources of the territories held as spiritual fiefs in a more onerous degree than happened to other territories. Moreover, the system of the sale of indulgences or remissions for all sins committed up to date was now being prosecuted to an extent never heard of before with a view to meet the increased expenditure of the Papal See, and especially the cost of completing the cathedral of St. Peter’s at Rome. Thus by a sort of voluntary tax the wealth of German was still further transferred to Italy. Hence can readily be seen the reason of the venomous hatred which among all classes of the Empire had been gradually accumulating towards the Papacy for more than a generation, and which ultimately found expression in Luther’s fulminations.

The peasant of the period was of three kinds the leibegener or serf, who was little letter than a slave, who cultivated his lord’s domain, upon whom unlimited burdens might be fixed, and who was in all respects amenable to the will of his lord; the höriger or villein, whose services were limited alike in kind and amount; and the freier or free peasant, who merely paid what was virtually a quit-rent in kind or in money for being allowed to retain his holding or status in the rural community under the protection of the manorial lord. The last was practically the counterpart of the mediaeval English copyholder. The Germans had undergone essentially the same transformations in social organisation as the other populations of Europe.

The barbarian nations at the time of their great migration in the fifth century were organised on a tribal and village basis. The head man was simply primus inter pares. In the course of their wanderings the successful military leader acquired powers and assumed a position that was unknown to the previous times, when war, such as it was, was merely inter-tribal and inter-clannish, and did not involve the movements of peoples and federations of tribes, and when, in consequence, the need for permanent military leaders or for the semblance of a military hierarchy had not arisen. The military leader now placed himself at the head of the older social organisation, and associated with his immediate followers on terms approaching equality. A well-known illustration of this is the incident of the vase taken from the Cathedral of Rheims, and of Chlodowig’s efforts to rescue it from his independent comrades-in-arms.

The process of the development of the feudal polity of the Middle Ages is, of course, a very complicated one, owing to the various strands that go to compose it. In addition to the German tribes themselves, who moved en masse, carrying with them their tribal and village organisation, under the over-lordship of the various military leaders, were the indigenous inhabitants amongst whom they settled. The latter in the country districts, even in many of the territories within the Roman Empire, still largely retained the primitive communal organisation. The new-comers, therefore, found in the rural communities a social system already in existence into which they naturally fitted, but as an aristocratic body over against the conquered inhabitants. The latter, though not all reduced to a servile condition, nevertheless held their land from the conquering body under conditions which constituted them an order of freemen inferior to the newcomers.

To put the matter briefly, the military leaders developed into barons and princes, and in some cases the nominal centralisation culminated as in France and England in the kingly office; while, in Germany and Italy, it took the form of the revived imperial office, the spiritual over-lord of the whole of Christendom being the Pope, who had his vassals in the prince-prelates and subordinate ecclesiastical holders. In addition to the princes sprung originally from the military leaders of the migratory nations, there were their free followers, who developed ultimately into the knighthood or inferior nobility; the inhabitants of the conquered districts forming a distinct class of inferior freemen or of serfs. But the essentially personal relation with which the whole process started soon degenerated into one based on property. The most primitive form of property — land — was at the outset what was termed allodial, at least among the conquering race, from every social group having the possession, under the trusteeship of its head man, of the land on which it settled. Now, owing to the necessities of the time, owing to the need of protection, to violence and to religious motives, it passed into the hands of the over-lord, temporal or spiritual, as his possession; and the inhabitants, even in the case of populations which had not been actually conquered, became his vassals, villeins, or serfs, as the case might be. The process by means of which this was accomplished was more or less gradual; indeed, the entire extinction of communal rights, whereby the notion of private ownership is fully realised, was not universally effected even in the west of Europe till within a measurable distance of our own time.[6]

From the foregoing it will be understood that the oppression of the peasant, under the feudalism of the Middle Ages, and especially of the later Middle Ages, was viewed by him as an infringement of his rights. During the period of time constituting mediaeval history the peasant, though he often slumbered, yet often started up to a sudden consciousness of his position. The memory of primitive communism was never quite extinguished, and the continual peasant-revolts of the Middle Ages, though immediately occasioned, probably, by some fresh invasion, by which it was sought to tear from the “common man” yet another shred of his surviving rights, always had in the background the ideal, vague though it may have been, of his ancient freedom. Such, undoubtedly, was the meaning of the Jacquerie in France, with its wild and apparently senseless vengeance; of the Wat Tyler revolt in England, with its systematic attempt to embody the vague tradition of the primitive village community in the legends of the current ecclesiastical creed; of the numerous revolts in Flanders and North Germany; of the Hussite movement in Bohemia, under Ziska; of the rebellion led by George Doza in Hungary; and, as we shall see in the body of the present work, of the social movements of Reformation Germany, in which, with the partial exception of Ket’s rebellion in England a few years later, we may consider them as coming to an end.

For the movements in question were distinctly the last of their kind. The civil wars of religion in France, and the great rebellion in England against Charles the First, which also assumed a religious colouring, open a new era in popular revolts. In the latter, particularly, we have clearly before us the attempt of the new middle class of town and country, the independent citizen, and the now independent yeoman, to assert its supremacy over the old feudal estates or orders. The new conditions had swept away the revolutionary tradition of the mediaeval period, whose golden age lay in the past with its communal-holding and free men with equal rights on the basis of the village organisation — rights which with every century the peasant felt more and more slipping away from him. The place of this tradition was now taken by an ideal of individual freedom, apart from any social bond, and on a basis merely political, the way for which had been prepared by that very conception of individual proprietorship on the part of the landlord, against which the older revolutionary sentiment had protested. A most powerful instrument in accommodating men’s minds to this change of view, in other words, to the establishment of the new individualistic principle, was the Roman or Civil law, which, at the period dealt with in the present book, had become the basis whereon disputed points were settled in the Imperial Courts. In this respect also, though to a lesser extent, may be mentioned the Canon or Ecclesiastical law, — consisting of papal decretals on various points which were founded partially on the Roman or Civil law, — a juridical system which also fully and indeed almost exclusively recognised the individual holding of property as the basis of civil society (albeit not without a recognition of social duties on the part of the owner).

Learning was now beginning to differentiate itself from the ecclesiastical profession, and to become a definite vocation in its various branches. Crowds of students flocked to the seats of learning, and, as travelling scholars, earned a precarious living by begging or “professing” medicine, assisting the illiterate for a small fee, or working wonders, such as casting horoscopes, or performing thaumaturgic tricks. The professors of law were now the most influential members of the Imperial Council and of the various Imperial Courts. In Central Europe, as elsewhere, notably in France, the civil lawyers were always on the side of the centralising power, alike against the local jurisdictions and against the peasantry.

The effects of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and the consequent dispersion of the accumulated Greek learning of the Byzantine Empire, had, by the end of the fifteenth century, begun to show themselves in a notable modification of European culture. The circle of the seven sciences, the Quadrivium, and the Trivium, in other words, the medieval system of learning, began to be antiquated. Scholastic philosophy, that is to say, the controversy of the Scotists and the Thomists, was now growing out of date. Plato was extolled at the expense of Aristotle. Greek, and even Hebrew, was eagerly sought after. Latin itself was assuming another aspect; the Renaissance Latin is classical Latin, whilst Mediaval Latin is dog-Latin. The physical universe now began to be inquired into with a perfectly fresh interest, but the inquiries were still conducted under the aegis of the old habits of thought. The universe was still a system of mysterious affinities and magical powers to the investigator of the Renaissance period, as it had been before. There was this difference, however: it was now attempted to systematise the magical theory of the universe. While the common man held a store of traditional magical beliefs respecting the natural world, the learned man deduced these beliefs from the Neo-Platonists, from the Kabbala, from Hermes Trismegistos, and from a variety of other sources, and attempted to arrange this somewhat heterogeneous mass of erudite lore into a system of organised thought.

The Humanistic movement, so called, the movement, that is, of revived classical scholarship, had already begun in Germany before what may be termed the sturm und drang, of the Renaissance proper. Foremost among the exponents of this older Humanism, which dates from the middle of the fifteenth century, were Nicholas of Cusa and his disciples, Rudolph Agricola, Alexander Hegius and Jacob Wimpheling. But the new Humanism and the new Renaissance movement generally throughout Northern Europe centred chiefly in two personalities, Johannes Reuchlin and Desiderius Erasmus. Reuchlin was the founder of the new Hebrew learning, which up till then had been exclusively confined to the synagogue. It was he who unlocked the mysteries of the Kabbala to the Gentile world. But though it is for his introduction of Hebrew study that Reuchlin is best known to posterity, yet his services in the diffusion and popularisation of classical culture were enormous. The dispute of Reuchlin with the ecclesiastical authorities at Cologne excited literary Germany from end to end. It was the first general skirmish of the new and the old spirit in Central and Northern Europe. But the man who was destined to become the personification of the Humanist movement, as the new learning was called, was Erasmus. The illegitimate son of the daughter of a Rotterdam burgher, he early became famous on account of his erudition, in spite of the adverse circumstances of his youth. Like all the scholars of his time, he passed rapidly from one country to another, settling finally in Basel, then at the height of its reputation as a literary and typographical centre. The whole intellectual movement of the time centres round Erasmus, as is particularly noticeable in the career of Ulrich von Hutten, dealt with in the course of this history. As instances of the classicism of the period, we may note the uniform change of the patronymic into the classical equivalent, or some classicism supposed to be the equivalent. Thus the name Erasmus itself was a classicism of his father’s name Gerhard, the German name Muth became Mutianus, Trittheim became Trithemius, Schwarzerd became Melanchthon, and so on.

We have spoken of the other side of the intellectual movement of the period. This other side showed itself in mystical attempts at reducing nature to law in the light of the traditional problems which had been set, to wit, those of alchemy and astrology: the discovery of the philosopher’s stone, of the transmutation of metals, of the elixir of life, and of the correspondences between the planets and terrestrial bodies. Among the most prominent exponents of these investigations may be mentioned Philippus von Hohenheim or Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheiin, in Germany, Nostrodamus, in France, and Cardanus, in Italy. These men represented a tendency which was pursued by thousands in the learned world. It was a tendency which had the honour of being the last in history to embody itself in a distinct mythical cycle. “Doctor Faustus” may probably have had a historical germ; but in any case “Doctor Faustus,” as known to legend and to literature, is merely a personification of the practical side of the new learning. The minds of men were waking up to interest in nature. There was one man, Copernicus, who, at least partially, struck through the traditionary atmosphere in which nature was enveloped, and to his insight we owe the foundation of astronomical science; but otherwise the whole intellectual atmosphere was charged with occult views. In fact, the learned world of the sixteenth century would have found itself quite at home in the pretensions and fancies of our fin de siècle theosophists, with their notions of making miracles non-miraculous, of reducing the marvellous to being merely the result of penetration on the part of certain seers and investigators of the secret powers of nature. Every wonder-worker was received with open arms by learned and unlearned alike. The possibility of producing that which was out of the ordinary range of natural occurrences was not seriously doubted by any. Spells and enchantments, conjurations, calculations of nativities, were matters earnestly investigated at universities and courts. There were, of course, persons who were ever to detect impostors: and amongst them some of the most zealous votaries of the occult arts — for example, Trittheim and the learned Humanist, Conrad Muth or Mutianus, both of whom professed to have regarded Faust as a fraud. But this did not imply any disbelief in the possibility of the alleged pretensions. In the Faust-myth is embodied, moreover, the opposition between the new learning on its physical side and the old religious faith. The theory that the investigation of the mysteries of nature had in it something sinister and diabolical which had been latent throughout the Middle Ages was brought into especial prominence by the new religious movements. The popular feeling that the line between natural magic and the black art was somewhat doubtful, that the one had a tendency to shade off into the other, now received fresh stimulus. The notion of compacts with the devil was a familiar one, and that it should be resorted to for the purpose of acquiring an acquaintance with hidden lore and magical powers seemed quite natural.

It will have already been seen from what we have said that the religious revolt was largely economical in its causes. The intense hatred, common alike to the smaller nobility, the burghers and the peasants, of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, was obviously due to its ever-increasing exactions. The sudden increase in the sale of indulgences, like the proverbial last straw, broke down the whole system; but any other incident might have served the purpose equally well. The prince-prelates were, in some instances, at the outset, not averse to the movement; they would not have been indisposed to have converted their territories into secular fiefs of the Empire. It was only after this hope had been abandoned that they definitely took sides with the Papal authority.

The opening of the sixteenth century thus presents to us medieval society, social, political and religious, “run to seed”. The feudal organisation was outwardly intact; the peasant, free and bond, formed the foundation; above him came the knighthood or inferior nobility; parallel with them was the Ehrbarkeit of the less important towns, holding from mediate lordship; above these towns came the free cities, which held immediately from the Empire, organised into three bodies, a governing Council in which the Ehrbarkeit usually predominated, where they did not entirely compose it, a Common Council composed of the masters of the various guilds, and the General Council of the free citizens. Those journeymen, whose condition was fixed from their being outside the guild-organisations, usually had guilds of their own. Above the free cities in the social pyramid stood the Princes of the Empire, lay and ecclesiastic, with the Electoral College, or the seven Electoral Princes, forming their head. These constituted the feudal “estates” of the Empire. Then came the King of the Romans; and, as the apex of the whole, the Pope in one function and the Emperor in another crowned the edifice. The supremacy, not merely of the Pope, but of the complementary temporal head of the medieval polity, the Emperor, was acknowledged in a shadowy way, even in countries such as France and England, which had no direct connection with the Empire. For, as the spiritual power was also temporal, so the temporal political power had, like everything else in the Middle Ages, a quasi-religious significance.

The minds of men in speculative matters, in theology, in philosophy, and in jurisprudence, were outgrowing the old doctrines, at least in their old forms. In theology the notion of salvation by the faith of the individual, and not through the fact of belonging to a corporate organisation, which was the mediaeval conception, was latent in the minds of multitudes of religious persons before expression was given to it by Luther. The aversion to scholasticism, bred by the revived knowledge of the older Greek philosophies in the original, produced a curious amalgam; but scholastic habits of thought were still dominant through it all. The new theories of nature amounted to little more than old superstitions, systematised and reduced to rule, though here and there the later physical science, based on observation and experiment, peeped through. In jurisprudence the epoch is marked by the final conquest of the Roman civil law, in its spirit, where not in its forms, over the old customs, pre-feudal and feudal. This motley world of decayed knights, lavish princes, oppressed and rebellious peasants, turbulent townsmen, licentious monks and friars, mendicant scholars and hireling soldiers, is the world some of whose least known aspects we are about to consider in the following pages.

1. We are here, of course, dealing more especially with Germany; but substantially the same course was followed in the development of municipalities in other parts of Europe.

2. Einleitung, pp. 255, 256.

3. Der Bauernkrieg, p.31

4. The three grades in the craft-guilds were those of apprentice, companion, and master. Every guildsman was supposed to pass through them.

5. See Appendix A.

6. Cf. Von Maurer’s Einleitung zur Geschichte der Mark-Verfassung; Gomme’s Village Communities; Stubbs’ Constitutional History.